It’s 1930 in Berlin, and two frustrated journalists run a puff piece about a folksy minor musician named Käsebier. Almost overnight, the media machine hypes him into a star – there are Käsebier dolls, champagne breakfasts for Käsebier, a Käsebier theatre on Ku’damm. But what happens when the glitterati move on? Gabriele Tergit’s rollicking satire of the culture industry, first published in 1932, is available for the first time in English as Käsebier Takes Berlin (Pushkin), translated by Sophie Duvernoy. This seminal Weimar novel is ripe for rediscovery – not least as a warning about commercialisation of the media. Above all, it’s a portrait of a city. Tergit’s memorable cast of characters embody the maddening contradictions of Weimar Berlin – its sophistication and its crudeness, its dynamism and its conformity, its intoxicating idealism and its calamitous demise.
Berlin also makes an appearance in To Be a Man (Harper-Collins), a short story collection by New York novelist Nicole Krauss. The book’s title story sees a Jewish woman and her German lover walking in Grunewald, arguing about what he would have done if he’d been alive under the Nazis. History hangs thickly between them; so does gender. These 10 stories feature all kinds of (cis) men – husbands, fathers, sons, seducers, bosses – and cohere into a thoughtful investigation of the complexities of manhood. Krauss makes excellent use of the short form, adopting different perspectives to probe the limits of intimacy and the nature of power.
Caleb Femi’s Poor (Penguin) offers a rather different exploration of masculinity. In this stunning debut, the young London poet offers an account of growing up in North Peckham – dubbed “the estate from hell” by British newspapers. Peckham is also where William Blake saw a tree filled with angels (“bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”), and there is a Blakean visionary power to Femi’s innovative, shapeshifting poems. Poor presents his verse alongside his photos of his community and the Brutalist architecture that’s shaped it.
“When everyone called me son of shadow,” he writes, “it was concrete that called me proof of light.” This work bears witness to injustice, loss and violence. But it is also rich in liveliness and love, and overflows with the world- making power of language.
For something lighter – it’s been a tough year – consider The Best of Me (Little, Brown) by David Sedaris. In this chunky new volume, the beloved American humorist presents his favourite pieces from nearly three decades of writing. Sedaris sparkles on his trademark themes of childhood, grief and family – but he also roams widely in his search for material. Whether he’s impulsively buying culottes in Japan, struggling to explain Easter in French class, or visiting a bizarro London taxidermist who shows him a forearm in a Waitrose bag, Sedaris is impossibly witty and unfailingly wise. His humour is not an escape from the world, but a way to see it clearer.